Dear Lily June,
When I asked your dad, Ryan, whose never been a big fan of Christmas (for reasons all his own to tell you, and which break my heart anew every time I think of them), what his favorite Christmas song was, he begrudgingly admitted there was one.
“I think ” he said, “it’s the creepy one.”
“The creepy one?” I asked, intrigued.
“Yeah, the one that’s really fast and creepy.”
I knew immediately which one he was talking about, but I played dumb a little longer.
“The words are comforting,” he continued, “[but] the music is terrifying.”
That’s dead-on accurate. (Have you guessed it?)
“I like the way that one makes me feel.”
I knew he was talking, of course, about “Carol of the Bells,” which, when I asked him about it, he confirmed immediately. I knew because, for the longest time, that was my favorite carol, too (and can you believe, after years of marriage, I’m only just learning this yet-one-more-to-the-millionenth thing that your dad and I share?). The way he described it nailed it.
There is a kind of nails on the chalkboard of your bones feeling that the sound induces, even while its lyrics are far more chipper than its tones. It is like the lights of Christmas pressed square against the frozen cold frame of a winter night, and I especially feel it with a version like John Williams’ (which, cliché as it is, Americans might recognize from film Home Alone):
What especially sent shivers down my spine thinking about it this year was, in the conversation with your dad, the sensation of deja vu I got.
I’ve mentioned before that my mother was never really into Christmas (or any holiday really), often reminding her daughters in their youth that her favorite day of the year was December 26th, after all her work as host and she-Santa was over.
So it surprised the hell out of your Aunt Loren and I when, one holiday season, we were out driving and your Grandma Raelyn turned up the radio volume for “Carol of the Bells,” proclaiming excitedly that this was her favorite Christmas song.
My sister and I stared at each other for a blink before saying, “Mine, too!” And we all meant it. And we had all never known, for years and years, that it was something we all shared.
Of course, the story isn’t entirely true anymore.
Years later, after her divorce from my father, my mother hit hard times financially and picked up a second, seasonal job in retail just to be able to afford gifts for her daughters (a sacrifice I’ve never fully known how to thank her for, especially as she never liked the holiday to begin with).
And that year, because it was for sale on all of the counters where she worked, my mother picked up a copy of a Christmas cd by The Roches–as they’re described on Wikipedia, “a vocal group of three Irish-American sisters.” And on that cd, which she played for most of the winter, was a song called Star of Wonder, a song which is, ostensibly, about a female shepherd who spots the Star of Bethlehem and wonders whether she’s worthy to follow it.
Ultimately, the shepherd(ess) does decide to stake out and track the celestial miracle, leaving others to wonder why she might leave her flock, whom surely she must still love. It is not unlike, to me, the story of my mother, who left the abusive man she’d been married to for seventeen years to start her life over with a man who would become my stepfather.
During their courtship, my sister and I were left alone to wonder whether our mother still loved us. And yet, she must have sensed, for her survival–for all of ours–it was a path she had to follow.
These days, we’re not invited over at Christmastime. My mother, if she does anything, does a small dinner with her new husband, your Grandpa Derrick, and her son, my brother and your Uncle Denny. She never forgets my sister or I, Lily June. She always calls us to wish us love, and she always sends money (which we always desperately need). It’s just that, at Christmastime, maybe for reasons that are all her own, she needs to be mostly alone, a fact I blamed her for for far too long, it leaving me, as it did, feeling lonely.
Maybe what I should have focused more on, all these years, was that Christmas she was willing to work hours upon hours until she dropped each night just to be sure we had presents I don’t even remember. I do remember, though, the gift of that song, my newer favorite, which is so hauntingly, achingly beautiful, it sticks with me to this day, it and the story of how I came to it the one heirloom I can afford to pass down to you this time of year.
Here it is, in all of its splendor:
- First and foremost, let me thank The Shameful Narcissist. If it weren’t for her awesome question prompts, I might not have written about Christmas music at all.
- Though it has nothing, really, to do with this post, a blogger named Regie wrote one of the best/funniest posts about Christmas music I’ve ever read. I’m linking to it here just because I think everyone in the world should read it.
- By Guinnog – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369860
3 thoughts on “Star of Wonder–On the Occasion that It’s Time for Me to Pass Down a Gift”
Until now I have never noticed that Carol of the Bell is spooky, but it is. As I listened I pictured someone in an old stone church, knife in hand, leading up to a climactic moment. Too funny.
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Wonderful post, as always, and great humor. I love the song Star of Wonder. Merry Christmas.
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Carol of the Bells was my favorite Christmas song, too, for a very long time. I loved it in that era where finding music was far more difficult than it is now, where you either had to be lucky enough to record it off the radio or spend hard to come by money on a CD or cassette. I always felt so lucky whenever I got to hear it, and the way your husband describes it is absolutely perfect. Its words and its music are incongruent. As someone who prefers the darker sounding Christmas songs like the fore mentioned, “We Three Kings,” “What Child Is This,” “Coventry Carol, “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and this haunting version of “The Holly and the Ivy” by Loreena McKennit, it’s heartening to see that I’m not alone in this more macabre love.
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